Monkey Shines (1988)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: November 18th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Given the infamous copyright snafu that prevented George Romero from ever profiting from Night of the Living Dead, you could have understood it if he of all people ever shamelessly chased an easy buck. And yet, throughout his entire career, he largely remained steadfastly independent, pursuing idiosyncratic passion projects like Season of the Witch, Martin, and Knightriders. Even as others were cashing in on the living dead phenomenon he ushered in, he refused to toil under a restrictive studio environment, choosing instead to hatch both Dawn and Day of the Dead under his own, fiercely independent umbrella and the X-rating that would entail. There was never any doubt that George Romero was making exactly the sort of film he wanted, even those—like Creepshow—that did happen to intersect with the mainstream. There is perhaps no better compliment you can pay to a filmmaker than to insist on their authenticity, and Romero was startlingly authentic, so much so that he was destined to be an outsider to a Hollywood system that was more than willing to use his ideas but much less willing to actually fund them to his specifications.
Consider the first time Romero directed a film for a studio: when approached by financially-strapped Orion in the late 80s, he didn’t come bearing some easily digestible, mainstream project but rather pitched an adaptation of Monkey Shines, a 1983 novel by Michael Stewart. A guy who had invented zombie sub-genre and collaborated with Stephen King really wanted to helm a movie about a psychic killer monkey terrorizing a quadriplegic and his friends. If nothing else, that captures the staunchly singular ethos of Romero, who naturally butted heads with the suits even after they signed off on it.
But even getting Monkey Shines into production at all feels like a triumph because let’s face it: this thing is every bit as weird as it sounds. After a truck plows over Alan Mann (Jason Beghe) during his morning run, he’s left confined to a wheelchair, unable to use any of his extremities. Adjusting proves to be difficult, as he has to contend with an overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) and a girlfriend (Janine Turner) who is suddenly all too eager to ditch him for the sleazebag doctor that performed Alan’s surgery. Despondent, he attempts to take his own life, which prompts his scientist friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) to devise a plan involving one of the monkeys in his experiments.
Since Alan needs a companion, it’s only natural that Geoffrey provides Ella, a highly intelligent monkey who—after a round of training with animal expert Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil)—will be capable of assisting around the house. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out that one of the psychoactive drugs in Geoffrey’s experiments has enabled Ella to tap right into Alan’s brain and carry out his impulses, no matter how horrifying. And considering Alan is stuck in a wheelchair, harboring resentment of just about everyone around him, those inner thoughts can go to some dark places.
Few filmmakers would even bother with something like Monkey Shines, a film whose schlock potential still doesn’t feel like enough to overcome just how strange and alienating it is. Just how do you make a convincing film out of a wheelchair bound man and his killer monkey? Even fewer filmmakers could come up with an answer to that, but Romero is certainly among that crowd. His approach was to resist those schlock impulses for as long as possible, choosing instead to hover around this simmering powder keg of a situation and gradually ramping up the tension. With nearly two hours to work with (and it would have been much more if he had his way to film his original, longer script), Romero dedicates more than enough time to the character dynamics at play, particularly the bizarre (but completely believable) bond between Alan and Ella. The scenes these two share (especially a tender one involving music) are crucial in establishing the fragile balance that’s threatened when other characters—be it Alan’s nurse (Christine Forest), his mom, or even a new love interest—interlope and introduce chaos.
Romero delicately gives his actors ample space and time to ground this outrageous premise, and it’s a testament to his vision that it actually works. Don’t get me wrong: Monkey Shines often feels like it’s teetering right on the edge of camp and in danger of plunging headlong into the schlock, but Romero exhibits just enough restraint to rein it in—well, for a while, anyway. As such, most of the performances are pushing right up against that threshold, too, with the characters proving to be striking enough without completely overwhelming the proceedings until it’s absolutely necessary. Beghe is a sympathetic figure, though you can sense that impotent rage welling beneath his amicable façade; he allows it to slowly build within him before allowing it to boil over into a wild-eyed, manic fury that signals that the film is about to become fully unhinged.
His supporting cast—including the monkey itself—is game to keep up with the escalating lunacy. Stanley Tucci and Turner are terrifically slimy as the doctor and ex-girlfriend that earn Alan’s—and, by proxy, Ella’s—scorn, practically inviting the audience to delight when the film does take a devious, schlocky turn. The same is true of Van Patten and Forest, who become increasingly fussy over Alan’s attachment to Ella and put themselves in the monkey's crosshairs in the process. As these two begin to lose it alongside Beghe, you can sense the film finally slipping down that slope, where it finally crash lands into the sort of territory you’d expect from a killer monkey flick. Even this is carefully crafted, though, as Romero wrings the situation’s natural suspense for all its awful potential (and a killer jump scare, albeit one Romero considers to be a dumb Carrie rip-off). As if crafting a believable relationship between Alan and Ella weren’t enough, Romero also turns the monkey into a genuinely frightening threat during a harrowing climax that finds her owner outwitting and overpowering her against all odds. There’s something especially suffocating about watching a man fend off a homicidal animal without the use of his extremities.
Consciously or not, something about that must have appealed to the frustrated artist in Romero. As someone who often found himself constrained by budgets, producers, or studio heads, it’s no wonder he would make a attempt at turning Monkey Shines into a character study, no matter how ridiculous that might sound. It’s not always a successful attempt—I’d be lying if I didn’t say the second half (read: the part where the monkey goes apeshit) is more entertaining than the prolonged setup. Of course, it’s also arguable that it only works because of that setup the studio didn’t really want to deal with, as Orion re-edited the film and forced a tacked on ending the director didn’t care for. After his experience with both this and The Dark Half—which Orion shelved for a couple of years before finally releasing it—Romero wouldn’t direct for a studio again until 2005’s Land of the Dead, and you can hardly blame him.
In many ways, Romero’s career was as heartbreaking as it was astounding. Certainly, a man who created an entire genre deserved better than to see his work thwarted by studios. Likewise, it seems unfathomable that he could spend an entire decade in Hollywood developing projects that never came to fruition. Romero’s resume certainly doesn’t require any bolstering, but it’s hard not to imagine that alternate universe where he helmed the likes of The Stand, Pet Sematary, Resident Evil, and The Mummy. He practically headlines any list of great film projects that never came to be, an ignominious distinction to be sure, but also one that speaks to his integrity. He could have lent his name to any number of projects but largely resisted the urge (Deadtime Stories remains a notable exception), preferring instead to scrape together funding for his own films, an endeavor that remained frustratingly futile until the end. Just days before his death, he revealed his plans for yet another Dead film that’s destined to joined the unfortunate ranks of projects that could have been—or, really, should have been, if we’re being honest.
But rather than dwell on that, it’s more pertinent to note that Romero never let the bastards grind him down. As frustrating as his career may have been at times, he was nothing if not humble and gracious, always eager to get started on another movie. Above fall, his love of movies was infectious, and you couldn’t help but be excited about his latest project, even if history suggested that enthusiasm should be tempered. That Romero went the last 8 years of his life without helming a picture almost feels criminal, especially since he was so willing to do so. Forgive this overly negative tangent—it’s just that you can’t help but feel like a man who gave so much deserved more in return. Untold numbers of generations of fans and filmmakers alike will continue to owe so much to George Romero, perhaps the most monumental and underappreciated talent to walk among us.
Thankfully, Scream Factory has done their fair share to do some justice to Romero’s more overlooked films. In addition to Monkey Shines, they’ve also issued definitive editions of The Dark Half and Knightriders, with the similarly unsung Land set to debut later this fall. Originally dumped to DVD with little fanfare by MGM over a decade ago, Monkey Shines benefited tremendously from the upgrade, as the Blu-ray sports the film’s finest presentation since it played theatrically and boasted a ton of new supplements.
That the ever infectious Romero was involved should come as no surprise, and he pops up all over the disc, most notably in a feature length audio commentary. He also appears alongside the cast and crew in “An Experiment in Terror,” a 50-minute retrospective bearing the quality and thoroughness you’ve come to expect from Red Shirt productions. Romero quite candidly speaks about how his career was at a crossroads at this point, as he has recently parted ways with Laurel Entertainment (and the steady salary that gig entailed) and wasn’t sure what was next until some producers came calling with the idea to adapt Monkey Shines.
From there, the various cast and crew members walk you through the production, with one stretch particularly dedicated to the special effects (mounted by typical members of the Romero extended family, like Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero). It also doesn’t skip out on allowing Romero and company to voice their displeasure with Orion’s treatment of the film. While he does concede that the film was essentially a negative pickup that allowed him to basically work with his usual crew in Pittsburgh, Orion’s post-production tinkering, marketing, and distribution, particularly the test screening process and the decision to open up against the likes of Cocktail.
Other bonus features include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a vintage making-of featurette and interviews, a still gallery, and the usual assortment of trailers and TV spots. Scream Factory also graciously included reversible cover art that will allow you to display the alternate design that once graced the film’s VHS release and become a video store staple (at least from my recollection—I couldn’t avoid seeing that damn monkey brandishing a bloody razor blade no matter what store I frequented).
But more than anything, however, this disc reinforces just what a gracious soul Romero was. Even though he clearly has issues with Orion’s treatment of the film, he admits a fondness and appreciation for the film. Forget for a moment what we could take away from Romero’s genius and art and consider that he also modeled what it meant to just be an enthusiastic film fan. Sometimes that entails taking the good with the bad and remaining enthusiastic even in the face of so much bullshit. Romero will rightfully be hailed as a genre pioneer and a fiercely independent filmmaker, but I think he would appreciate being remembered as a film lover as well. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: